The first thing you might notice is the lawns: carefully manicured, they bring to mind a preserved vision of the ideal American suburb of the 1950s. It’s not an accident. Block clubs in Chatham maintain a genial atmosphere and preserve a long-standing community within the neighborhood. It’s a feel that neighborhood citizens work hard to preserve in a time when the families of Chatham have begun greeting newcomers, renters, and unaffiliated buyers who nevertheless want to be a part of what is one of the most tight-knit communities in the South Side.
“Most of the homes had been passed from one generation to the next,” says Claire Addams, a community leader and former board member of the Greater Chatham Alliance. Addams, who has been in the neighborhood for more than fifty years now, has the advantage of both perspective and attention: she knows where the neighborhood was ten or twenty years ago, and, moreover, she knows where it’s going. Addams is well-connected too, even if she doesn’t let it show: a brief but friendly interaction with a man who turned out to be a former alderman was nonchalantly passed over. “I know people, and I guess some of them know me,” she said.
For Addams, that’s how being a Chatham native feels at its best; you’re not just a part of a neighborhood, you’re part of a family, with all of the support and watchfulness that comes along with that. These are people who have been in contact sometimes for decades, and it shows: seeming strangers will turn to each other after sitting down in the same restaurant and turn out to be old friends.
However, the community here has felt an upset in recent years. “You start to see people living in Chatham who aren’t stakeholders,” says Addams, referring to recent transplants, “and one of the things was that younger generations left Chatham and didn’t come back.” Addams doesn’t fault them for that—“they feel successful,” she says, but at the same time, the newcomers don’t have the roots that made their predecessors so tight-knit.
“The grammar school now, they bus people in. This is a school where people would walk to school, came home for lunch, and then went back to school for the rest of the day—like a small town, almost. Now the kids at the same school… we don’t have many young families anymore.”
The “best” part of Chatham, then, is more than just the most delicious food or well-attended events, although those are of course important. What’s really essential are the spaces that offer the greatest chance to bring people together and establish the sense of a community. Organizations like Addams’s affiliates, the Greater Chatham Alliance, have been focusing on how to contribute to Chatham’s brand and solidify a map of the neighborhood, but the eateries and community spaces are also doing that same work, from the bottom up.
Best Slice of Home
Five Loaves Eatery tastes like home. Actually. At first I thought it was because of the cutesy signs and tchotchkes found throughout, all offering some variation on the same slogan: “Everything is okay here. Whatever your troubles are, they no longer exist from the time you enter our door.” The decorations may not be permanent, but they are certainly endearing.
But the homey feeling is only augmented when one tastes the food. There’s a care for the dishes, which don’t have many bells and whistles,
but which nevertheless carry a taste that sets them apart from simple “comfort food.” The breakfast offerings are the highlights, with bacon that manages to approach crispy without losing tenderness and eggs that make the word “fluffy” feel inadequate.
Still, the real stars of the show are the servers and cooks of Five Loaves, the ones who tie it all together. Five Loaves is, in fact, a family business, and every interaction with an employee feels like you’re temporarily joining that family. Even simple gestures, like a signed “Thanks” with a heart on the check, all build on the same feeling of a safe space.
A quick chat with the owner of the restaurant, Constance Simms-Kincaid, reveals how deep this feeling goes. “We want people to be able to talk about the issues that affect them,” she says, making it clear that for many of the people who come to Five Loaves, the comfort offered isn’t actually temporary. Many of the people who were at the restaurant when I came were regular attendees, on a first name basis with the entire staff. In a neighborhood that’s long been defined by the bonds between its residents, Five Loaves is just as much a town hall as it is a restaurant.
Much recent press has been dedicated to Five Loaves’s recent recovery from theft and fire, but the management prefers to focus on the present. “We just want this to be a place where you break bread with us,” Simms-Kincaid says. When you’re eating at Five Loaves, it’s hard not to feel that solidarity.
Five Loaves Eatery, 405 E. 75th Street. Tuesday-Thursday, 8am-3pm; Friday-Saturday, 8am-5pm; Sunday 9am-5pm. Closed Mondays. Average entrée $8, à la carte $3. (773) 891-2889. 5loaveschicago.com (Austin Brown)
Best Cinema-Related Arm of Theaster Gates’ Redevelopment-Through-The-Arts Octopus
Black Cinema House
One of the manifold South Side projects tied to artist-entrepreneur-icon Theaster Gates, the Black Cinema House, which previously occupied a repurposed two-story flat on the corner of 69th and Dorchester, moved to a repurposed distribution facility a few blocks over at 72nd and Kimbark last fall. Gates’ own Rebuild Foundation, responsible for the BCH’s construction and curation, is solely devoted to the facilitation of community engagement and redevelopment through the arts. The Black Cinema House acts as a space for artists from Chicago and elsewhere to present and screen their work and the work of others, under the broad but relevant theme of South Side and African-American culture and history. With a series of screenings in partnership with the Experimental Sound Studio, and regular video and installation art workshops with UofC Arts Incubator artists in residence, not to mention the tasteful, welcoming interior decor of recycled and found materials, it’s easy to see Gates’s influence on the space. Keep an eye on the BCH’s events calendar—they have something for everyone.
Black Cinema House, 7200 S. Kimbark Ave. Check website for events. rebuild-foundation.squarespace.com/black-cinema-house (Louis Clark)
Best Tropical Escape
Tropical Island Jerk Chicken
The most revelatory part of my trip to Tropic Island Jerk Chicken wasn’t the food (amazing) or the service (hugely accommodating), but rather an aside from one of the people I went with: “I love how they have pictures of the food, but they’re not edited or anything. It’s like they just put the camera above the food and took the picture.” While the sentiment was somewhat ironic, the feeling—of honesty in the presentation of food—was anything but. Popular both as a dinner restaurant and a catering service, all of the food in Tropic Jerk is worth a try (check out the plantains), but it’s tied together by something indescribable beyond “attitude.” The taste hits hard, but that doesn’t mean it’s one note: these dishes can be subtle.
Tropic Island Jerk Chicken, 553 E. 79th Street. Tuesday-Thursday, 10am-10pm; Friday–Saturday, 10am–11pm; Sunday, 11am–10pm. Closed Mondays. Average entrée $8.25. (773) 224-7766. tropicislandjerkchicken.com (Austin Brown)
Full Blossom Florist
This flower boutique, founded in 2013 on Greater Grand Crossing’s commercial boulevard on 75th, is notable for the free casket displays it offers to neighborhood victims of gun violence. The service has temporarily stopped, the owners say, but will resume at the start of next year after a very successful six-month trial run. The store also offers bouquets for banquets, weddings, and other events, as well as large rose displays that feature hundreds of red or white flowers arranged in the shapes of crosses or hearts.
Full Blossom Florist, 316 E. 75th Street. Monday–Saturday, 10am–6pm. (773) 891-5291. More info available on Facebook. (Jake Bittle)